07/01/2013 1:59PM

Racing Medication and Testing Consortium using new program to catch cheats

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – It has a name like something out of a spy novel or from within a deep, dark recess of the federal government. In the cat-and-mouse game of catching cheaters armed with the latest chemical substances, that’s probably appropriate.

It is called the Tactical Research Program. It is being administered by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an organization funded by a wide cross section of industry organizations. Its purpose: to collect information about new drugs in use at the racetrack and to develop tests that can detect the drugs before horsemen are aware that the tests exist.

The program, which was quietly launched late in 2011, is the U.S. racing industry’s first national attempt to coordinate intelligence-gathering efforts and the development of new drug tests. Under the program, the RMTC is acting as a hub for information about illegal drugs that have made their way to the racetrack, relying on confidential tips from a network of state investigators, veterinarians, and trainers.

After receiving information about a “credible threat,” as the executive director of the RMTC, Dr. Dionne Benson, put it, the organization obtains samples of the drug and contracts with laboratories to assess the effects of the substance and, if necessary, to devise a test to detect it.

The U.S. racing industry has in the past used similar procedures in its hit-and-miss attempts to stay a step ahead of the game’s sometimes-sophisticated cheaters. However, the process was often handled by a patchwork of agencies, some of which may not have had the funds, expertise, or drive to turn racetrack scuttlebutt into a viable test.

“Efforts in the past have been piecemeal and have not been very well coordinated,” said Dr. Rick Sams, director of the HFL Sports Science Laboratory in Lexington and a consultant to the program. “This is all about pulling together experts, putting them in the same room, and getting them to assess a new substance and determine the way to detect it.”

The last big drug find in racing occurred in 2012, but it had little help from the new RMTC program. Early that year, Industrial Labs, a drug-testing company in Denver, developed a test to detect dermorphin, a powerful opiate painkiller, after receiving tips from state regulators about the drug’s use on backstretches.

The lab then distributed the test procedures to labs around the country, leading to the detection of dozens of dermorphin positives among Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds trained by horsemen on the Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico circuits.

Benson said the dermorphin case provided a good template for how the Tactical Research Program would ideally work: quietly, quickly, and effectively. Despite being officially launched late in 2011, the RMTC’s program was “in its infancy” when the dermorphin test was developed, said Benson, who was hired by the RMTC last July.

The process to identify a new drug and develop a test is complicated. With a limited budget – $100,000 in seed money from The Jockey Club – the RMTC’s program cannot afford to take stabs in the dark, officials said. It must have verifiable information that a drug is actually being used.

Furthermore, the program needs to sort the wheat from the chaff before devoting resources to the development of a test because many “drugs” making the rounds in racing are nothing more than the equine equivalent of snake oil, marketed as powerful “performance-enhancing agents” even if they are nothing more than expensive concoctions of innocuous substances.

That was the case with a recent sample sent to the University of California-Davis’s drug-testing lab, according to officials. Informants had identified a painkiller marketed under the name “Purple Pain” that was allegedly being injected on race day. Tests revealed that the solution contained nothing more than amino acids.

“A lot of things we find don’t contain anything at all,” Benson said, noting that “Purple Pain” is still illegal to administer on race day. “We don’t want to spend a whole lot of money chasing those things down.”

For drugs that do have performance-enhancing capabilities, the Tactical Research Program’s initial step is to identify the exact substance. That is done by obtaining a sample of the drug, ideally, and then reviewing an existing catalog of almost 1,500 drugs that are known to drug-testing agencies, according to Sams. If the drug does not have a match on those lists, then lab officials have to go through sometimes-painstaking work to compare the substance to similar drugs and use sophisticated lab equipment to identify the substance’s chemical components.

After the drug has been identified, a test needs to be devised that can detect the drug at the concentration of a typical dose. Although it is possible to develop a test for a drug that has not yet been precisely identified or studied for its efficacy, “that’s not going to be satisfactory in most cases,” Sams said.

Instead, regulators prefer to conduct a study of the drug’s effects by administering the substance to a “test herd,” a group of horses that is usually maintained by universities for research.

Although some tests can be developed rapidly, many tests can take as many as six months to develop. For one, any time researchers are going to use live horses for tests, the study has to pass a detailed examination by a committee at the university where the herd is located to ensure that the health and welfare of the test horses are not going to be compromised. For a drug whose effects are unknown, the approval can take two to three months, Sams said.

After a test is developed, the RMTC plans to coordinate the distribution of the procedures for the test to all other laboratories in the United States. During that process, Sams and Benson said it was important to keep the details about the test quiet so that horsemen who are using the drug are not tipped off about its development. Catching the cheaters, the two officials said, is an important deterrent against experimentation with other drugs in the future.

Although Benson would not identify the substances that the Tactical Research Program is studying, she said the program has one substance “in the pipeline” and several others that are being assessed.

Sams said the program has identified informants on every major racing circuit in the United States. In addition, officials from racing countries around the world have recently formed an informal committee that passes on rumors about drug use in their jurisdictions. The committee includes several officials with ties to the RMTC.

Under a resolution passed last year that expires in November, labs that have passed the RMTC’s new laboratory accreditation program are being “preferred” for Testing Research Program work (two labs so far have passed the program, the UC Davis lab and the HFL lab, but eight others have applied). After that date, only labs that have been accredited will be allowed to receive funds and conduct work on behalf of the program.

The accreditation rules also mandate that labs share the results of their work, a requirement that represents a change in culture for the labs, which compete with each other for business.

“Obviously, the most important thing is to have integrity in racing,” Benson said. “So, whatever it takes.”